Contributed By Shoshana Klayman
Namaste from India! Had a great first day in Mumbai. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is absolutely stunning! I’ve never seen anything like it. We took the pre-tour to Elephanta Island, leaving by ferry from Gateway to India. On the island we walked up to the ancient cave temple of Shiva (originally the Hindu god of destruction). We learned a bit about Hinduism from Joshua, our tour guide. The entire temple was carved from one single stone!
Today was the first full day of the trip and it was jam-packed. We visited two lovely synagogues: Magen David (Baghdadi) and Tipheret Israel (Bene Israel). At the Hari Krishna temple, we had to take off our shoes before entering. We watched the priest light candles while others chanted and banged on drums. After that, we enjoyed a “Thali” lunch—a large round metal tray with different types of vegetables, bread, sweets, and lentils.
Gandhi's house has been transformed into a museum. We saw his room with his few earthly possessions, including a spinning wheel, sandals, three books (Bible, Quran, and something else I can't remember), and a notepad. We saw his library of over 40,000 books, where students often come to study today. We stopped to read the letter he wrote to Hitler, which brought up various questions: Why did Gandhi refer to Hitler as "my friend?" And why did Gandhi preach that the Jews should be non-violent, telling them to do nothing as their friends and family were killed? After the museum, we went to Banganga, an old village in the middle of Bombay. We visited a family in a small house, and walked around the tank, a holy body of water. We interacted with the local Indians and one took a Selfie with me on his phone. LOL.
We walked from the hotel to Friday night services at Knesset Eliyahu, a Baghdadi synagogue, and joined members of the congregation for a festive dinner of bhajees, rice, and chicken dishes. I was able to sing along during Eshet Hayil, something I have never really been able to do outside of our family dinners. It felt really great to recognize tunes and understand that we are not the only family left still carrying on these traditions. I was very touched.
On Sunday, we spent the day learning about the history of the Bene Israel in the villages where they first landed centuries ago. We rode in “tuktuks” (auto rickshaws) around Alibag, met with the hazan of the Magen Avot synagogue there, and saw the memorial and gravestones in Navgaon. We even saw a camel on the beach!
Highlights of our first day in Cochin: the graceful Chinese fishing nets; the colorful and stunning lanterns (fanus) in the Paradesi Synagogue; walking on Jew Town Road; tasting a Southern Indian dinner served on a banana leaf.
On our second day, we woke up for early morning yoga and focused on our breathing as the sun rose from the garden. The yoga teacher helped everybody breathe from their diaphragms and confirmed that most of American yoga is commercialized. After yoga we had breakfast and went to visit a few synagogues. We walked through a local market, past huge piles of okra, bananas, string beans, and all sorts of nuts. We then took a scenic boat ride to our lunch destination, where we saw the Chinese fishing nets live in action (although no one caught any fish :(. We enjoyed a short time at the beach.
After lunch we went back to Fort Cochin everyone got time to shop before an interesting theater presentation called Kathakali. The actor did not speak, but he could perform various facial movements, such as rolling his eyes around and around, or isolating his jaw movement. Without making a sound, he demonstrated different emotions, such as love, anger, and fear. Then a narrator told us a story, and two actors acted it out without ever actually talking- like a silent movie but a little creepier and with more outrageous costumes.
Today was an INCREDIBLE day filled with beautiful sights and adventures. We began our day driving through the old pink city of Jaipur. All the architecture was the pink/salmon color of the maharajah, the king.
As we got off the bus to take pictures, we saw snake charmers who took us by surprise! It was hard to believe the snake was real. We drove to the Amer Fort, the main palace of the maharajah, and we rode elephants to the top. We had a baby elephant who was struggling a bit but she made it! We passed elephants with beautiful painted trunks and bedazzled foreheads. The ride was bumpy (as to be expected) but we had an amazing view of the lake and beautiful palaces around the water.
We bought a couple of pictures and were very proud of our purchases. From there we explored the palace and marveled at the detailed walls, ceilings, and gardens (and the view!). After the palace, we took jeeps back down the mountain. The beggars selling junk followed us all the way down and tried to hop into our cars! Talk about perseverance.
We went to see the observatory (Jantar Mantar). We saw the biggest sun dial in the world (actually) and counted that the time was 10 minutes before 4 pm. We also observed that the maharajahs were very into zodiac signs and had a whole calendar build into the ground which took into account the alignment of the stars and planets.
After this we went to a textile shop where we saw how they make, paint, and thread their beautiful wool and silk rugs (I was incredibly tempted to buy a small one but I'll come back one day when I'm rich)... It was amazing how careful the workers must be with every stitch—and they do everything by hand. We explored the tablecloths, scarves, and pillowcases, and I bought my very first sari.
We then went to a place that cuts and polishes precious and semiprecious stones. We looked at all the amazing jewelry and I wanted to buy everything in the store! It was amazing to see these gems in their original, rock form and then see the finished product in a ring or necklace.
There was a kite festival today in Jaipur, a holiday where no one has work or school. All across the sky there were kites flying high. I tried to take pictures but they just looked like dots on my camera. It was absolutely amazing, straight out of Kite Runner. The whole sky was filled with colorful kites, twirling around happily. As night began to fall, we saw Chinese lanterns lit across the sky, balls of fire flying all around. Fireworks erupted all over; it was incredible.
We had dinner outside where the trees were decorated with lights, and fires burned in pits around the tables. Dancers performed in twirling saris, balancing pots of fire on their heads. One of the dancers balanced six pots on her head at once! Then a man balanced two glasses and a pot on his head while stepping on a pile of sharp needles. Our own Big Apple Circus here in Jaipur. It was incredible! The dancers then got the whole group on their feet and we did a little Indian hora.
I was able to cross many things off my bucket list today. It was a day of adventure and beauty. We saw a peacock perched in a tree as well as camels along the side of the road—so cool.
Calcutta is completely different from what I expected (although I am not entirely sure what I expected). Perhaps I didn't expect the traffic to be so bad (although I was warned!). We had services at Neve Shalom and dinner outside of Maghen David.... Wow. However crowded the streets may be, Maghen David makes up for in beauty. I have seen pictures but they have not done the synagogue justice. I sat in Sabba's seat and tried to channel his energy. Members of the community joined us for dinner.
On Shabbat morning we had services at Maghen David. I read Torah and I didn't mess it up! It was very emotional and members of the community teared up at the fact that there was once again music in Maghen David. I channeled Sabba as I read Torah and I channeled Savta in trying to find the right key to sing on! I channeled Auntie Flora because I was wearing my tallit that she helped make for my bat mitzvah, and I channeled Auntie Aliza in the power that the music was able to heal the hearts of the Jews left in Calcutta, who crave a community that no longer exists.
We had lunch in the courtyard and then Ima and I climbed the clock tower and enjoyed the view from the top: we saw a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, all existing together in harmony.
We took a taxi ride to the cemetery and I found the graves of our ancestors. Although I do not know much about them I can only imagine their scholarly, wise, kind spirits. I tried to connect with my namesake, Sabba's mother Flora, and I hoped that she would be proud of the person I have grown to be. I kissed Auntie Ramah’s grave and wished that I had known her. So many amazing people that I have heard so much about, but have never met. It saddened me that I never will but I can only imagine strong, spiritual and artsy individuals who value education, tradition, and compassion. We took another taxi back (did I mention the taxi only cost about $1.00 for a 40 minute ride?). We relaxed the rest of the day at the hotel and then went to Flower’s house for dinner.
In Delhi we saw a Sikh temple and witnessed their worship service as well as the kitchens which feed hundreds every day. We drove around New Delhi and saw the Parliament buildings and Humayun’s tomb (which is the inspiration for the Taj Mahal); completely breathtaking.
We survived a bicycle rickshaw ride through old Delhi and it was incredible! My senses jumped, from the colorful sight of saris and jewelry to the sounds of honking horns to the feel of other rickshaws whooshing past me, practically grazing my legs. We visited the Gandhi Memorial, which had a very peaceful aura (I'm sure he would've loved it), and Qutab Minar, a mosque that is open to people of all religions. We had a pasta lunch (yay) and then went shopping at the Khan Market. A professor spoke to us at dinner Indian Jewish and Muslim relations—very interesting.
The Taj Mahal is really is as breathtaking as they say—and I cannot believe that I saw such a wonder. It is great way to say goodbye to India. Namaste!